Growing up there were 3 men that had a major impact on my life and who I have become as a man. Of course my Father and Grandfather are at the top of this list but surprisingly a man I never met isn’t far behind. I became a Tony Gwynn fan pretty early in life. I don’t really remember exactly when and I don’t really know how it came about. As probably the only Padre fan in Orange County, Ca I’m sure it was because he was the best player on my favorite team. I had no idea the impact he would eventually have on my life.
Like most young boys I emulated my hero as much as possible. I practiced his stance, wore his number, and watched every move he made. I have every baseball card of his ever made, my walls were covered in his posters, I have jerseys, bobble heads, attended his last game and jersey retirement ceremony. To say he was my hero might be a bit of an understatement. We didn’t have the cable baseball packages we do now. I only had a few opportunities a season to actually watch him play. Living in Orange County we didn’t get Padre broadcasts on TV or the radio. We didn’t have the internet and I don’t think I discovered ESPN until my teen years not that there would be much Padre coverage anyway. I remember as a kid waking up every morning during the baseball season and checking the sports page to see how he had hit the night before. I’d check the box score and then look at the league leaders to see where Tony was hoping that he was close to winning another batting title. The Padres were always pretty bad for most of my life. The hope that they would win the World Series usually faded by the middle of April and so the only thing I had to cheer for the rest of the season was that Mr. Padre would end up leading the league in hitting.
At about 11 years old I began to hear about Tony’s work ethic. I
think initially it was through a hitting video he had made that I had picked up at my local Costco. I learned how hard he worked and that he would hit off of a batting tee everyday. Like most of what I did on a baseball field I imitated my hero. I bugged my parents to buy me a tee and then I set out everyday and would hit ball after ball ultimately destroying our backyard fence. At the time I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t really know what the benefits would be, I only knew that Tony did it and so should I. What I couldn’t have possibly imagined was how this simple practice would change my life.
In the beginning my practice was all about physical improvement. Slowly I improved and began to gain a greater and greater understanding of what I was doing. However, the results on the field weren’t anywhere near what I had hoped. I experienced many disappointments that I never expected. Getting cut in high school and never playing varsity baseball as well as getting cut from the local JC in college. My Tony Gwynn work ethic however allowed me to have opportunities that I probably shouldn’t have had. Not only because of the player the work created but because of the actual work ethic itself. Coaches would give me a chance for no other reason than I worked hard. I was able to over come the challenges of my situation and play 4 years of college baseball and then have the good fortune of spending time with 6 different independent professional teams. It’s easy for me to see that had I picked a different role model I probably wouldn’t have gotten to experience any of these opportunities. I wouldn’t have realized my dream of playing professional baseball and if that’s all that Tony gave me it would be enough. As it turned out however my playing career ended up giving me much more than just time on the field.
As my daily practice sessions evolved the sessions themselves began to change. What was once a means to improve as an athlete became a meditation for me. My physical practice sessions became mental practice sessions. Hitting balls off the tee became my daily retreat. They were my opportunity to quiet my mind and become present for the 30-45 minutes the session would last. The batting cage became my sanctuary and out of that was born creative ideas, intuitions on how to improve as a hitter and as a person. It became a source of personal exploration and ultimately personal discovery. These sessions helped be become a better hitter, a better coach, a better husband, father, and friend. As corny as it sounds these sessions helped me become a better man.
As is often the case in our lives it’s difficult to see how a situation we are currently going through will connect to greater fortune in the future. It’s impossible to connect the dots of our lives and see how one thing led to another until we’re far enough removed and are able to look back. In those earlier years when I was getting cut and consistently being told I wasn’t good enough I couldn’t understand why I these things were happening to me. Looking back however I can see how perfectly these events led me from one great thing to the next. Through the hardships and the opportunities born out of them I met my wife, traveled the country, met my closest and dearest friends, and learned more about myself and about life then I had ever intended to. I have Tony Gwynn to thank for that.
No that he’s gone I’ve reflected on my favorite Tony Gwynn memories. His enthusiastic game winning slide at home during the ’94 All-Star game, a double he hit off of Randy Johnson in the ’96 playoffs in Houston on an un-hittable pitch, the upper deck home run he hit at Yankee Stadium in Game #1 of the ’98 World Series, being in the stadium to witness his final game and final at-bat. All of these memories are special but probably the most special memory came while I was watching him play with my other hero my Grandpa. I drove down from Orange County to San Diego to my Grandparents house just so I could see his 3000th hit. My Grandpa left work early so he could meet me at his house and we could watch a locally televised game in Montreal in the hopes that Tony would get his patented single through the 5.5 hole for number 3000. it ended up being a broken bat bleeder to center in front of maybe 5,000 Canadians but to me it was perfect. I was able to sit there with my Grandfather and watch my hero reach baseball immortality.
I never met the man but the impact on my life is indescribable. I became the player I was and am the coach I am because of him and indirectly became the man I am because of his influence. I did get close to meeting him once. In fact I was within a few feet. A couple of years ago a good friend of mine’s brother played for the Phillies. They were in town and so I used the excuse to head down to San Diego and get free tickets to watch my Padres play. After the game we were standing downstairs inside the tunnel waiting for his brother to come out. Tony walked up and stopped standing a few feet from me talking to one of the Phillies’ players. It was the closest I’d ever been to him and the perfect opportunity to introduce myself. I tell people I didn’t want to bother him, that he was holding his grandchild and was with his family and wanted to respect his family time. The truth is however that while I was in my early 30’s at the time I stood there as a trembling 10-year-old who was in the presence of someone he considered to be larger than life. Looking back I wish I would have said something. I wish I would’ve reached my hand out and introduced myself. Not in a “You’re my hero can I have your autograph?” way but just to say “Thank you!” Just to tell him that his career impacted me in ways that extend far beyond the baseball field.
A major part of my childhood died today. He left us way too soon but the impact he had on baseball, the city of San Diego, and my own life will be felt for a long time. I’m gonna miss him, even though I haven’t seen him play in 13 years I’m going to miss turning on Padre games and hearing his high-pitched voice and boyish laugh. Gonna miss you Tony! Thank you for everything you did for me and Padre fans everywhere!!!